The Venice Film Festival closed out with its most star-studded debut: the world premiere of Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” which brought stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Jodie Comer to the Lido — as well as Jennifer Lopez, Affleck’s one-time and now-current romantic partner. But the film, the first co-written by Affleck and Damon since they won an Oscar for “Good Will Hunting” at the 1999 Academy Awards (this time with a major assist from Nicole Holofcener), did not necessarily generate as much heat as the Bennifer red carpet photos.
The movie “flirts with, and sometimes falls into, an extravagant kind of costume-drama camp,” Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review for Variety. “The accents are all over the place. The acting teeters between the operatic and the overstated. At times, it’s like watching ‘A Man for All Seasons’ meets ‘Game of Thrones’ with a soupçon of Monty Python. What’s more, there’s a structural idiosyncrasy at the movie’s core. … ‘The Last Duel’ presents itself as a puzzle told in three chapters (in each section, new pieces fall into place), and if done right the three versions will add up to more than the sum of their parts. If not, more becomes less.”
Based on true events, “The Last Duel,” according to the official plot synopsis, “unravels long-held assumptions about France’s last sanctioned duel between Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two friends turned bitter rivals. Carrouges is a respected knight known for his bravery and skill on the battlefield. Le Gris is a Norman squire whose intelligence and eloquence make him one of the most admired nobles in court. When Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Comer), is viciously assaulted by Le Gris, a charge he denies, she refuses to stay silent, stepping forward to accuse her attacker, an act of bravery and defiance that puts her life in jeopardy. The ensuing trial by combat, a grueling duel to the death, places the fate of all three in God’s hands.”
The film is split into three sections, focused in order on Carrouges, Le Gris, and finally Marguerite, and unfolds in a fashion that had many critics comparing it to the classic “Rashomon” in how each section fills in a gap left by the previous chapter.
“As it colors in previous events with new texture and narrative detail, Affleck, Damon, and Holofcener’s dexterous adaptation casts the feuding leads as opposite sides of the same coin,” Ben Croll wrote for Indiewire. “Both [Carrouges and Le Gris] are the authors of their own (mis)fortunes, with the shrewd and suave Le Gris using all the social graces his higher-born foil never had to lap him in life. If Le Gris holds onto some lingering warmth for his old friend, the fact is, one is a born loser and one, despite his lack of noble blood, was still born Adam Driver. Even in rigidly feudal France, you find your station.”
The structure, Croll wrote, allows Comer to put a strong button on the film. “As the film reframes the whole sordid affair from Marguerite’s view, it also shows its cards in a way ‘Rashomon’ would never dare, which is, no doubt about it, a real break with the framework,” he wrote. “But in seizing this newly found moral clarity and building toward the bruising showdown (don’t you dare cry spoilers on a film called ‘The Last Duel’) that is his entire stock and trade, Scott kicks the ball back toward his side playground while giving Comer room to shine.”
Affleck, Damon, and Holofcener have been quick to center Comer’s role and performance in discussing the project, out October 15 via 20th Century Studios and Disney. This is “a film about someone who is denied justice, who goes to great lengths to seek justice at great risk to themselves,” Affleck said before the Venice premiere. “It is about this incredible woman from history who spoke out against a man who assaulted her, so naturally that seemed relevant [to the #MeToo movement].”
In a previous statement, Scott claimed Comer’s performance “will make her one of the great actresses of her generation.”
That’s high praise from the director, if not unexpected since he hired the actress for the role. But based on the early reviews, Scott’s enthusiasm is warranted.
“The cost of the ordeal to Marguerite is written all over Comer’s mostly internalized yet wrenching performance, and it’s her determination to be heard in a society that requires women to be demure and silent that gives the final act its power,” David Rooney wrote for The Hollywood Reporter. “To Holofcener’s credit, she conveys that strength without resorting to big, period-inappropriate Important Speeches.”
In the Telegraph, Ryan Leston called Comer “the glue that holds” the project together.
“Comer is the standout star here, vacillating in each account between dutiful wife, adulterous woman, and world-weary rape victim as the scene demands, playing each with staggering realism,” Leston added.
However, not every review was able to overlook some of the film’s apparent flaws. “By the time the film gets round to showing its hand as an episode of Medieval #MeToo, it has numbed us with so much flash and fustian that the heart of the story has almost been drowned,” Jonathan Romney wrote for The Guardian in a two-star review. “Marguerite’s story could have made a fascinating, somewhat Shavian drama if only the grandiose spectacle (and the 152-minute running time) had been stripped back. As it is, you quickly tire of the mud, metal and permanently medieval weather: if it’s not snowing, everything’s steeped in mist. And it takes a considerable leap of faith to get over Damon’s mullet and bogbrush beard, less 14th-century knight than 1990s nu-metal bro.”
“The Last Duel” is out October 15.
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